Space is the second element in our definition of graphic design. It refers both to the placement of elements in relation to each other, and to the gaps between them, where there are, to all intents and purposes.
Empty space. It’s usually white in printed material, although it may well be coloured, or a muted background image on a screen.
Why is this important? Good use of spacing allows the eye to process visual information more easily, and to transmit it to the brain in a logical sequence. Bad spacing doesn’t do this, so your message will get confused or ignored.
Start with the shape of the screen, the space in which you are designing your learning. This shape is no accident. Most screen sizes are now based on what’s known as the “golden ratio”, which is roughly 1 to 1.6.
The golden ratio has a long history in art and architecture going back to ancient times, with buildings such as the Parthenon, Milan Cathedral, the Great Mosque of Kairouan and even Stonehenge allegedly designed with these proportions in mind.
It also appears in paintings – either in the overall size of the canvas, or in the placement of elements upon it. Although paintings can be different shapes, and many buildings are far wider than they are tall, there is something inherently pleasing about the 1.6 ratio which lends itself to the presentation of imagery.
Text, by contrast, usually works best if presented the other way up. From the earliest days of printing, books using typography have usually been taller than they are wide.
The two terms for these alternative presentation styles – portrait and landscape – come from art history, and at a time before mass literacy, they referred simply to different but familiar ways in which artists could present images so that they would be understood. Portraits would essentially be “read” up and down – landscapes, and the symbols within them were designed to be “read” from left to right.
In either format however, the eye can only process so much information. If you try to cram in too much, the whole message will get ignored, as there is so much competition for our visual attention.
When there were fewer visual messages around, artistic statements, whether in the form of books, buildings or canvasses could afford to be full of intricate and extensive detail. Nowadays, to make things stand out, they need to be presented more simply, and in their own space.
Search for a term like “the power of white space” and you will find hundreds of books, essays and design ideas. Yet far too many business presentations and eLearning courses still present cluttered and busy screens, with words and images fighting each other for our attention.
The reasons are varied. It’s partly due to the history of learning material design.
A few decades ago, “slides” were prepared on acetate sheets for overhead projectors. These were fairly expensive, so there was a tendency to use as few as possible. This kind of thinking transferred into the design of software like PowerPoint and hierarchies of bullet point levels.
It also fitted in well with a culture of compliance and risk aversion – in many mandatory training courses, there is a tendency to insist on presenting qualifying statements and using legally waterproof language which doesn’t sit well with creating memorable messages.
Nowadays however, there’s no excuse for screen clutter. The solutions are very simple. Use more screens, with less text on each screen.
If you simply have to present six bullet points, use six screens. Some designers also counsel against using more than six words on any screen. The space around text boosts readability, and guides the readers’ eyes towards the main message. If there are too many messages on one screen, most of them will get lost. It really is as simple as that.
And as always, try to be consistent. There is a reason why captions and text boxes appear in particular places on slide templates, and why they are spaced the way they are. It’s probably to do with the golden ratio.
Although it’s easy to move them closer together to get more on the screen, it’s rarely a good idea. If you do have to move screen elements however, don’t just guess. Check the precise placements in the elements’ sizing or spacing properties, and make sure you use the same measurements everywhere.
If headings or text boxes are in slightly different places on consecutive screens, the learner will notice, and it will detract from the content.